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REVIEW - Our thoughts on the new Fantasyland's Enchanted Forest

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The Magic Kingdom opened the brand new Enchanted Forest for guest previews for the very first time on Friday (view photos of the opening morning), and although it doesn't officially open until December 6, we wanted to share our first impressions.

The new Fantasyland represents a near $500 million investment in the Magic Kingdom, adding two new areas to Fantasyland - Storybook Circus and the Enchanted Forest. Storybook Circus, which is already fully open daily, is home to the new double Dumbo attraction, complete with indoor interactive queue, the rethemed Barnstormer kids rollercoaster, Casey Jr Splash n Soak Station water playground, Big Top Souvenirs shop, and Pete's Silly Sideshow character meet and greet. The Enchanted Forest includes the signature attraction of 'Under the Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid', Enchanted Tales with Belle character experience, Ariel's Grotto character meet and greet, Be Our Guest Restaurant, Gaston's Tavern, and Bonjour Village Gifts.

The Enchanted Forest
(Video walk through of the Enchanted Forest)
The Enchanted Forest experience begins as you pass through the impressive new 'Castle Walls' in the existing Fantasyland (photos). Dividing the castle courtyard and the Enchanted Forest, the walls form a boundary between the two areas, and help to really focus your attention on what lies ahead. The new Enchanted Forest is more than just a few new attractions, shops and restaurants, it is its own mini-land.

Heading into the Enchanted Forest you are immediately struck by how green and natural everything looks. The original Fantasyland doesn't really contain any trees, mainly because of the network of underground tunnels that form the utilidors, but that is different in the Enchanted Forest. Maurice's Cottage, which is the entrance to Enchanted Tales with Belle, is barely visible from the entrance to the land due to the amount of trees in the area. They really do add to the sense of depth in the area, you can't see everything from a first glance, and it helps to draw you into the land. Not only does everything look natural, it sounds natural. WDI sound designers have brought some magic to this area, introducing many layers of sound effects to the area, making everything sound alive. The addition of waterfalls, with both the sound of water and the sight of it running through the land reinforce the natural environment even further. Something we took away from our first visit was just how good the Enchanted Forest looks. Never mind the actual attractions within, the place just looks fantastic. It has a similar feel to Epcot's World Showcase and Disney's Animal Kingdom, where sometimes you just want to admire the scenery. Scenically, no expense has been spared here, everything looks beautiful and themed to the highest order. There is no question that this is some of Imagineering's best work in a number of years, and without doubt the best the Magic Kingdom has had since Splash Mountain in 1992. See this video for a scenic walk-through of the entire land.

Enchanted Tales with Belle
(View photos | View videos)

The first attraction that you can experience just inside the main entrance is 'Enchanted Tales with Belle'. This is really Disney's evolution of the classic character meet and greet experience. The idea here is that each guest gets to interact with Belle, through acting out a story. The adventure begins in the beautifully landscaped gardens of Maurice's Cottage, passing through the queue area, and into the cottage itself which begins to set the scene. There are a number of animatronic figures in this attraction, including Lumiere in the main show and Madame Wardrobe in the preshow area. This attraction is firmly aimed at families with young children. Outside of the animatronics and wonderful theming, there is not a lot here that would interest older guests, but this is not to detract from an attraction that is part of Fantasyland, and aimed at young children. There is no question that this is the highest quality character meet and greet experience anywhere. The size and scope of the attraction, along with the degree of interaction with both Belle herself, and animatronic figures puts it into the next level. The attraction typically takes around 50 minutes to experience, including the queue area and experience. It will ultimately feature FASTPASS+, along with the traditional standby line.

Be Our Guest Restaurant
(View menu | View photos)

'Be Our Guest Restaurant' is the next stop as you move further into the Enchanted Forest. The exterior of this place is just stunning - jaw dropping good. An imposing bridge, with ruins of castle walls, detailed rockwork, waterfalls and Beast's Castle looming in the distance overhead all set the scene wonderfully. There is a dark side to this part of Fantasyland, with lots of thematic aging applied to every surface, creating a fantastic sense of foreboding. Crossing over the bridge and through a rusty old iron gate you find yourself in front of a huge imposing doorway. During the soft opening the restaurant was not operational, but we assume that this area will become the check in and waiting area for the restaurant. Heading inside, you find yourself transported into the Beast's Castle. The lobby forms a hub to a number of rooms, including sights of the largest of the three dining rooms, the ballroom, and the entrance to the Armory Room, which is the queue area for the quick service ordering and payment. As with everything in this land, the lobby is amazingly detailed and themed. From the light fixtures, to stained glass, wall artwork and flooring, every surface is rich in detail. There is no question that when people enter this area and look out into the ballroom that jaws will drop. The whole experience just grows and grows as you move further into the restaurant. The subtle soundtracks playing in the background go further to reinforce the story. The restaurant will be unique in how it operates, offering quick service lunch, and full table service dinner. The lunch service will allow guests to pass through the Armory Room, and into the Parlor Room where they will place orders on touch screen kiosks. From there, the food will be magically delivered to the table that the guest sits at. During diner, the restaurant will offer traditional table service. There are three dining rooms, the largest being the ballroom, and then two smaller rooms, the West Wing, and the Rose gallery. During the soft opening the food service has not been operating, so we will revisit this with our impressions of the food later (view menu here). It is very clear that 'Be Our Guest Restaurant' is likely to become the number one on everyone's list for must-do dining at Walt Disney World. It really looks to be something special.

Gaston's Tavern
(View menu | View photos)

Leaving 'Be Our Guest', we cross a bridge with amazing scenic views of Beast's Castle and move into Belle's Village, home to 'Gaston's Tavern' and 'Bonjour Village Gifts'. Again, everything you see is themed to the highest level. There is so much depth that you really feel the immersion into the Beauty and the Beast story. At the center of the village is a statue of Gaston, which is very fitting, as just inside the village we find 'Gaston's Tavern'. This really is a quick service kiosk location taken to the next level. The interior detailing here is at the level of a full table service location. There are two small dining rooms, each seating about 30 guests, and a central order and pickup area. Look for lots of details in here, including a fireplace, an in-progress game of darts with Gaston, all kinds of artwork, and some hunting trophies. The signature item here is LeFou's Brew - a frozen apple drink, with a hit of marshmallow, and a passion fruit-mango foam on the top. It is good, REALLY good, but be prepared to pay roughly $5 for the regular version, or $10 for the souvenir cup version. Also included is a pork shank, chocolate croissants, and cinnamon rolls (view the full menu here). While we were very impressed with 'Gaston's Tavern' and some of the offerings, we couldn't help but feel like it is a missed opportunity for some more diverse food choices. This of course can change, and hopefully will evolve in the coming months.

Bonjour Village Gifts
(View photos)

'Bonjour Village Gifts' is the Enchanted Forest's merchandise location, and sells a range of home goods, princess merchandise, 'Gaston's Tavern' T-Shirts, and more. It is becoming repetitive to say, but again the store both inside and outside represents the highest quality of theming. Looking like something right out of the movie, the store offers great eye-candy, even if you are not in the market for any of the merchandise offerings.

Belle's Village is also home to the land's restrooms, located at the back of the village area. In front of the restrooms is a small courtyard, which is a great place to take some shade and maybe a rest for a few minutes. Even the water fountains here are themed, and in this area, to an old fashioned pump. Fans of great hand dryers will be pleased to know that the restrooms are equipped with Dyson Air Blade dryers, along with paper towels.

Under the Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid
(View video | View photos)

Leaving Belle's Village we move into the largest area of the expansion, and the signature attraction - 'Under the Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid'. If you have been following our years of construction updates, you will know that this attraction covers a huge amount of land and has one of the most elaborate exteriors ever designed at the Magic Kingdom. The outside of the attraction is an expansive rock-face, incorporating Prince Eric's Castle, waterfalls, beaches and more. You enter the attraction by passing the marquee, featuring Ariel herself. Here you are taken by the size of this attraction. You get a rough idea of how big this is from seeing it from afar, but when you are up-close, everything becomes that much more impressive. Prince Eric's Castle is wonderfully recreated here, with details galore, and enough eye-candy to be an attraction in itself. Again it resembles something that you would find at Epcot's World Showcase, it looks that real. The queue begins to work its way through the rockwork, beaches, pools, and waterfalls. This first part of the queue actually reminded us of parts of Typhoon lagoon. The sound of water, the blue Florida sky, along with all the rockwork and palm trees really transports you out of the Magic Kingdom to another place. Some guests will criticize the decision to put part of the queue outdoors, but I think once you experience it, and appreciate how it adds depth to the attraction, you will agree that a bit more time outdoors is well worth it. Moving from the outdoor queue to the indoor queue, you find yourself inside caverns and caves. This is where the queue starts to introduce even more details, and some surprise interactive elements. Scuttles Scavenger Hunt is found here in the first part of the indoor queue, featuring an Animatronic Scuttle, and a series of special effects, similar to those found in The Seas with Nemo and Friends at Epcot. This part of the queue was not fully operational during the soft opening, so we will have to revisit this later for the details of exactly how this works. The queue continues into a series of smaller rooms, again, with fantastic attention to detail. The ceilings in particular are impressive, with amazingly aged timbers lining the roof and decorative light fixtures. This is one queue area where you wouldn't mind spending some time - so much to look at, and in general a pleasant place to be. The entire queue area reminded us somewhat of a mix of Splash Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean. Without doubt it is probably the best queue at the Magic Kingdom, and in the top 3 at Walt Disney World.

Leaving the impressive queue area, you reach the boarding area and step onto the moving conveyor belt of the omni-mover ride system. Sharing the same technology as the Haunted Mansion, and more directly, The Seas with Nemo and Friends, the ride system moves you through each scene, controlling your direction of view by rotating the vehicle through 360 degrees. The ride tells the story of The Little Mermaid through a number of show scenes, featuring animatronic characters, music and special effects. You will find some of the best animatronic figures in Walt Disney World at this attraction, with the Ursula figure being particularly impressive. The use of figures is a little bit mixed, where you have some of the absolute best, combined in scenes with static animated figures that resemble something from it's a Small World. The contrast between the good, and the not-so-good figures is huge, and perhaps a little jarring to the overall ride experience. The use of video screens also has a similar effect, there are fully rendered show sets, which then transition to a video screen. While there are obviously budgets in play, the mix of full show sets and then video is jarring, but fortunately this does not happen often. The ride time is approximately 5 minutes, and is nearly identical to the version that opened earlier at Disney's California Adventure. Although the ride is a reproduction of the Disneyland Resort version, the greatly enhanced queue area combines to make this attraction a much better experience. We have no doubt that this will become one of the Magic Kingdom's must-do rides, and fans of the movie will absolutely love the attraction. Leaving the ride, you pass through more caves, and emerge on the opposite side of the attraction to where you entered. Surprisingly there is no gift shop, but there is a meet and greet opportunity with Ariel in her new grotto. The grotto has its own queue, and you do not have to pass through the attraction to meet Ariel.

The Opening

Until the start of official previews on November 19, the new Fantasyland is currently in soft-openings ahead of a series of registration-required official previews for both cast members and guests. We have compiled a list of those dates here for those of you who want to try and get a sneak peek before this new land opens. The new land has its grand opening on December 6 2012.

New Fantasyland has been hotly anticipated since it was first announced, and with good reason. The Magic Kingdom has not had an expansion since Splash Mountain 20 years ago. The new Fantasyland represents new experiences on new land giving guests all new areas to explore. Walt Disney Imagineering have clearly not taken this task lightly, and have put a tremendous amount of time, attention, detail, and money into creating these new experiences. There is no question that this is the best addition to the Magic Kingdom in the past 20 years, guests will love it, and even the harshest of critics will find difficulty in faulting this expansion. There is still more to come in the new Fantasyland, with the full opening of 'Be Our Guest Restaurant', and the addition of live entertainment, along with the big addition of the Seven Dwarf's Mine Train in 2014. We will be keeping a close eye on the construction of that in the coming months, and all of the other changes as the new land transitions to full opening.

If you want to see more, visit our links below to photos and videos taken during the previews over the last few days, and also head to our discussion forums to talk with other fans about the new Fantasyland.

PHOTOS - Take a tour through Belle's Village, Gaston's Tavern, Bonjour Village Gifts, and Under the Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid

VIDEO - Take a ride through at Under the Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid

PHOTOS - A detailed look inside Bonjour Village Gifts in the new Fantasyland

VIDEO - Take a scenic walk-through of the spectacular new Fantasyland

PHOTOS - We go inside Be Our Guest Restaurant

PHOTOS - Construction walls removed around the second set of castle walls in the new Fantasyland

GUIDE - Fantasyland soft opening and preview schedule

PHOTOS - Inside Gaston's Tavern
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